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The future of Southeast Roanoke's industrial area

Big changes are expected with developer Ed Walker's purchase of the former American Viscose plant in Southeast Roanoke
Jeff Bossert
Radio IQ
Big changes are expected with developer Ed Walker's purchase of roughly 75 acres, including the old American Viscose plant in Southeast Roanoke.

It’s not hard for Irvin McGarrell to revisit his childhood –just blocks from the old Viscose rayon plant.

He still lives in the region. He’s now 91, his family moved there when he was 3 years old, and the house is still there.

“All through the 40’s, if you could get a job down there, you were lucky,” said McGarrell, who worked as a chemical analyst at Viscose.

His father had a career there as a foreman, at a time when most people in Southeast Roanoke worked at the plant, while those in the northwest part of the city worked on the railroad.

“I worked out of the chemistry lab, and the ladies – they would spin the yarn, and the workers down there where I was at, they would take the yarn, and stick it into the machine, and this machine was going along slowly, and it came out the end, then it went to the dryer. It was real interesting.”

 1924 Viscose photo
Ina Dixon
A 1924 photo of the Viscose plant from the National Register of Historic Places

At its height, Viscose employed some 5-thousand people at the sprawling plant. It abruptly shut down in 1958, when the market for rayon dried up.

McGarrell’s later years included time in the military, Virginia State Police and Roanoke City Police.

Will Trinkle’s earliest memory of the same area, the Roanoke Industrial Center, also known as Riverdale– once partially owned by his grandfather- came in the early 1960’s. That’s when one of the smokestacks from Viscose was considered unstable.

Trinkle’s family brought a picnic, and came to watch a crew remove it. That’s until some of the bricks fell the wrong way.

“My grandfather grabbed me, and threw me into the backseat of his car, which the door was open, thank goodness,” he recalled. “And my grandmother & mother grabbed my brother – threw us all. My father must have too, but it was a scramble. And after it all fell, everybody just started laughing.”

Riverdale has been part of Trinkle’s family ever since. He still calls it one of Roanoke’s best kept secrets.

“I’ve had people never set foot over here,” he said. “I’ve had people who have read about it – and just said, ‘I had no idea that was there.”

The roughly 75 acres along the Roanoke River now has 120 tenants – ranging from a ballet company, the Virginia Fire Museum, a sports complex, and industrial sites that were leased by Trinkle’s office.

His ownership, at CW Francis Real Estate, a company named for his grandfather - only just came to an end. That’s due in part to a decades-long friendship with developer, and new owner, Ed Walker.

“There’s just a new life here that wasn’t here that wasn’t here a few years ago – and I think Ed saw that, and he saw a greater vision,” he explained. “We get some of this rezoned for housing, which I think is a natural here. And I’m excited to see what happens.”

“I see my role as sort of a steward, or shepherd,” Developer Ed Walker said. “I would love to see (Riverdale) be a place where there is evidence, and expression of lots of different kinds of people.”

In April, the Roanoke City Council signed off on the sale of Riverdale, making Walker just the third owner of the property in the past 100 years.

“This is a big sandbox, and a lot of us are going to have a lot of fun for a long time trying to make it something,” he said.

Walker’s purchase of the site includes a $10-million forgivable performance loan. That includes money for cleaning up the property, in exchange for a promised $50 million in investment over the next 17 years.

“I see my role as sort of a steward, or shepherd,” Walker said. “I would love to see it be a place where there is evidence, and expression of lots of different kinds of people.”

His vision includes what he calls "wildly complicated" work, like stabilizing old buildings, including those Viscose smokestacks.

“The opportunity is to create an entirely new area – sort of a destination. It’s always been special to the relatively few people who knew about it, I think it will be fun to share its magic with more folks.”

Interview with Ina Dixon
Jeff Bossert talks with Danville Historian Ina Dixon, who talks about her hopes for a 'History Harvest' at Riverdale.

Besides space for apartments, Walker also expects to see a master plan for Riverdale focused largely on arts and culture.

Samples of Brian Counihan's work at Art Rat Studios
Jeff Bossert/Radio IQ
Brian Counihan
Samples of Brian Counihan's work at Art Rat Studios

Brian Counihan has been a Riverdale tenant for 10 years, seeking a space away from downtown for his art studio.

We’re not just sort of an ivory tower over here of artists all talking to each other,” he said. “It’s every walk of life, every different profession.”

Counihan said word of mouth has propelled Art Rat Studios, with plenty of space for holding classes, and putting on shows.

“In my mind, I see a real valuable role for what we do. If it’s just apartments without a soul it, it might be harder to imagine it as a community.”

Donnie Raines has been maintenance supervisor for the Roanoke Industrial Center for nearly 48 years. He’s seen the space transform from a number of empty buildings in his first few years.

Cleaning up the area included removing the contents of fallout shelters, and remnants of the Viscose plant.

“Lights hung about six feet off the floor, because there was nothing but row after row of sewing machine,” he said. “There are people that I used to rent to – their grandmother worked here, and their names were engraved in glass.”

Raines says some of the cleanup has proved difficult, including finding the source of water leaks within those tunnels, most of which has now been filled in. He says the job remain interesting. His goal? Retiring after 50 years with the city.

 Irvin McGarrell photos
Jeff Bossert/Radio IQ
Irvin McGarrell in the late 1930's with his father Andrew James & sister Adelaide. McGarrell, 91, in front of the same house in May of this year.

Debbie Cristley lived in the Riverdale area in the 1950’s and 60’s. Her grandmother, Ollie Wingo, and her husband Keith’s grandmother, Mary Powell, worked at the Viscose plant at a time when everyone knew everyone.

“I hope they would be able to bring a lot of the feelings back for that area,” she said. “She was one of 11 children, and her dad was a farmer. I would listen to her stories, but I wish I had listened more.”

She said Riverdale just needs a facelift.

Former Viscose worker Irvin McGarrell says when he was a kid in Riverdale, you never had stray far from home to run errands, or grab a bite to eat.

“It was just a world onto its own, I mean it was just a good place to live,” he said.

Developer Ed Walker says he believes Riverdale will be thriving place, long after he’s gone.

Jeff Bossert is Radio IQ's Morning Edition host.